Armenia, Azerbaijan, the Baltic republics— and now Georgia. As the rising tide of longsuppressed nationalism engulfed another region of the Soviet Union last week, reformist President Mikhail Gorbachev had a fresh problem to add to his already sizable list. After 19 nationalist demonstrators died following a confrontation with troops wielding clubs and shovels, citizens of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, seethed with resentment. Hundreds were detained as troops patrolled the streets and barricaded the main squares to prevent further mass gatherings. The nation’s ruling Politburo sought to re-establish its authority through the calming presence of its Georgian member, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. The local Communist party chief resigned in disgrace. But, clearly, the fire of revolt had been lit in the sunny, mountainous Georgian republic.
Ironically, the Georgians’ nationalistic fervor was ignited by one of their republics’
own minorities—the 91,000-strong Abkhazians, who last month demanded greater autonomy for their tiny Black Sea region. That kindled demands among the republic’s 5.3million-strong majority for what was termed a “united Georgia.” And once the nationalist ball started rolling, it was a short step to demands for Georgian independence. On April 4, dozens of nationalist protesters began a hunger strike in Tbilisi. The demonstrations swelled in the following days, culminating in a mass sit-in on the city’s Lenin Square on April 8. Slogans on banners read “Red Army get out” and “The U.S.S.R. is the prison of the nationalities.” Also on display were homemade versions of the maroon, black and white flag of Georgia’s short-lived independence after the 1917 Revolution.
The next morning, Georgian party boss Dzhumber Patiashvili sent in the troops— virtually all non-Georgians—to break up the demonstration. Ordered not to use firearms, they waded into the 8,000-strong crowd with clubs and shovels. “They threw themselves on our people like beasts,” said one woman. But other eyewitnesses saw it differently. Mikhail Rudyak, a Moscow geologist who watched the scene from his hotel, said that the troops beat
the demonstrators “mostly on their backs and bottoms,” then people started throwing bottles and rocks at the the troops “and the crowd just went crazy—it was horrifying.” Sixteen people—10 of them women—died on the spot. Three more died later in hospital.
Officials said that asphyxiation caused most of the deaths when people were crushed in the panic to leave the square. They also claimed that rocks and bottles injured 90 soldiers and policemen. From Moscow, Gorbachev sent Shevardnadze to calm his fellow Georgians and denounced attempts to "push” Georgia into “the slough of ethnic enmity.” And on April 14, local party boss Patiashvili—under fire for his handling of the demonstration—resigned. Still, Georgian nationalists were unimpressed. In an obvious reference to Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (openness), Leda Archvadze, whose brother-in-law was arrested after the incident, declared: “They say you can talk now, but when you do they kill you.”
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